East of the Tolly Club in Tollygunge, a neighborhood in the West Bengal city of Calcutta, there is a small mosque, and past that a quiet enclave of modest, middle-class homes. Once, within the enclave, there had been two ponds, and between the ponds a lowland which took up a few acres. After the monsoons each year, the ponds would rise and rainwater would cover the lowland for months. The sun would eventually burn the water off, and once again the damp, marshy ground would become exposed. Two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, have walked across the lowland uncountable times, using it as a shortcut to the field where they play football, or soccer, with friends. As they tiptoe through the dank, wet lowland, they encounter many kinds of plant and animal life. Some creatures lay eggs that are able to last through the dry season, while others bury themselves in the mud, “simulating death” and waiting for the rains to return.
The novel’s first chapter introduces the central symbolic image of the lowland. Though the narrator is telling readers that the lowland—and the ponds serving as its water sources—have been since dried up and paved over, the marshy ground was once deeply tied to the lives of the novel’s two central figures, Subhash and Udayan. The chapter’s final image, of animal life struggling to survive in the lowland throughout the dry season, foreshadows the struggles Subhash and Udayan will face themselves as they mature. The lowland is both a calm and a violent ecosystem—the brothers’ relationship, too, will have periods of peace and of volatility as they grow older.